My school offers AP Art History. My brothers took the class. They didn’t want to but my mother made them. The summer before my stint in the class I argued my case, I got bored in museums, I hated (a strong word I know) the movies Big Eyes and Monument Men, I didn’t even like the Degas picture book I had as a four-year old! My mother would not give in and in her words, “a well-rounded person must have, at the least, a basic understanding of art history.” I would argue that the same goes for classical music though we got through high school without touching an instrument. Needless to say I started AP Art History in August of 10th grade.
I became obsessed with the subject matter and the Snapple-like facts I could blurt out at any moment about a piece, period, or medium. I fell in love with the vibrant brush strokes of Van Gogh, the intricate reliefs adorning the temples of India, the power of Ai Wei Wei, the masterful chiaroscuro of Caravaggio.
Just one work, out of the 262 pieces I studied, did not resonate with me. Arguably one of the most recognized works of art in the world, this particular piece draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to gaze upon its muted earth tones and its supposedly alluring smile – the Mona Lisa. My response, ‘Meh’.
If you were a dedicated reader of my blog, you would know that I travelled to Paris in the spring. While there I went to the Louvre (who doesn’t) and spent a solid 5 hours, and 10 miles, walking the historical halls of the palace and seeing dozens of pieces that left me in awe. Near the end of my visit, my mom suggested we find the renaissance paintings. Even though both of us have never been big Renaissance fans, we thought since we had the opportunity to see them in person we might as well.
We found the Renaissance wing on an extremely confusing map. After multiple attempts, in bad French, to enlist the help of the museum floor staff, we entered the glass-ceilinged hall swarming with people. The patrons came at us in droves, pushed us from behind, sidled up in front of The Oath of the Horatii (one of my all-time favorite paintings) as I marveled at its magnificence, tickled our heads with baby socks hanging from Asian tour group leader pointer sticks. My mom and I linked arms, not because we felt a surge of love for one another, not because we worried we would become separated, but rather so we could form a sort of battering ram and try to push through the crowd in the direction we chose. Alas, we lost the battle and the pulsing mass of tourists moved us toward a large ballroom. It felt like the I-5 in LA on a Friday afternoon, no lane changing, no getting off at an exit, nothing but a slow shuffle forward. No one stopped to look at the hundreds of other pieces adorning the walls. My mom and I tried to stop now and then when a piece really caught our eye, or made us feel something. The mob began to slow and the chatter began to grow. We found ourselves looking over and through the heads of a thousand plus people to see a relatively tiny picture encased in some protective plexi glass. The Mona Lisa.
Cameras snapped, and contrary to the signs everywhere, flashes burst with blinding white light. A sea of hands held phones aloft in hopes of grabbing an image that the eyes could not see. In this horde of jabbering, smelly, hot, bright humans I experienced a moment of clarity and thought “the most photographed barn in America”. “What?” you might ask.
Prior to getting to this exact place in the space and time continuum I had immersed myself, unwillingly, in the theory of post-modern art and literature. I had read Don DeLillo’s White Noise and dismissed many of the main character Jack’s actions as superfluous and dull. In particular, his visit to the ‘most photographed barn’. Jack, and others take pictures of it, buy post cards of its image in the gift shop but never really see the barn. Its wood planks and hay lofts hold no relevance for them, rather their meaning exists solely in showing that they too had visited the most photographed barn. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more it is photographed the less of a barn it becomes.
Back to the present, and the sweaty hall of glossy dark heads and staccato vowels. As I stand on tippy toe and crane my head to the right I catch a glimpse of the bottom left corner of the painting. The others around me can surely see no more and yet they tap away on phones and cameras – purely to post on Instagram or bore friends at dinner with an image of an image of the most photographed painting in the world. DeLillo had nailed this human phenomenon long before cell phones and social media, he had recognized this need to be acknowledged and slipped it in casually to a work I had not wanted to read. This book White Noise, has in fact, become the Mona Lisa a post-modern literature and is read because it is the ‘most read post-modern book’. Wow, life and school collide.
A good day.